Does Africa have the will to grasp the future?

Africa hosts annual International Union of Marine Insurance event.

From a maritime point of view, Africa is enjoying a place in the sun. Not only is it hosting the annual International Union of Marine Insurance event for the first time in the organisation’s 144-year history, but the continent of my birth is currently commanding the attention of some of shipping’s giants.

Last month, AP Møller Capital confirmed that it had received a total commitment of USD982 million from leading investors for its Africa Infrastructure Fund. A milestone, according the fund’s chief executive officer, Kim Fejfer, which means it can focus on maturing the construction and acquisition opportunities in Africa that it has developed in the 12 months since its launch.

And the Danish giant is not alone in wanting to “support sustainable economic growth and prosperity on the continent, and at the same time deliver attractive returns to the investors”. Many others are looking to benefit through investing in African infrastructure and services.

In July, DP World unveiled plans to establish a hub in Mali, Hapag-Lloyd has recently beefed up its East Africa links, and Mediterranean Shipping Company launched a deepsea West Africa ro-ro service, with all the companies building on their existing African footholds. They are not the only ones that have been committed to the continent for some time. CMA CGM, Grimaldi, Bolloré, and Hutchison, to name a few, also have been active there for decades.

Ambitions in Africa are certainly not new and they tend to be controversial. From Cecil Rhodes’ drive to create a rail link from the Cape to Cairo, Egypt, in the 19th century to Africa’s key role in Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative, foreign investors readily seek to capitalise on opportunities that will be unlocked by improving transport connections.

And who can blame them? The potential is vast. Some 38 of Africa’s 54 states are coastal, and maritime zones under Africa’s jurisdiction total 13 million km2, according to the United Nations. The scale of opportunity is sizeable and growing; African export trade stood at USD631 billion in 2017 from USD596 billion in 2016, according to IHS Markit’s Global Trade Atlas.

But all this begs the questions: Why doesn’t Africa itself seize the benefits of its natural bounty? Where is Africa’s vision for its own development?

In 2012, the African Union published 2050 Africa’s Integrated Maritime Strategy (2050 AIM Strategy), which it described as a broad framework for the protection and sustainable exploitation of the African Maritime Domain for wealth creation. In the months leading to the adoption of this strategy in April 2014, there was a heart-gladdening and determined drive from politicians all over the continent to win backing for this initiative.

However, all of this seems to have come to nothing. A review on the African Union website shows that, since January 2014, only three activities under this initiative warrant mentioning and, while small pockets of homegrown infrastructure promise have come under this Africa watcher’s radar in the intervening years, this continent-wide charge has all but disappeared.

Energy is abundant in Africa, the entrepreneurial spirit alive and well, and many of its citizens have savvy and a work ethic that are second to none. One can only hope that seeing others secure attractive returns from infrastructure investments in the region reignites that fire for African nations to lay down their own vision for the future.